If you discount the countless times I used to get stoned, I was 26 years old when I took my first fully conscious inhalation and meditated for the first time.
The stoner’s path just wasn’t an option for me. After being completely hooked I had finally given up a couple years earlier—it had stopped being fun and its function had become to make me feel normal, which seemed pretty pointless. As when I’d given up anti-depressants a few years earlier, I knew I had to discover who I was without all that.
I was on a mission to find ecstasy, or at least some peace of mind. The non-drug route was now appealing, if only because getting off my head had provided just fleeting respite from ‘me’ so far. After extensive immersion in losing my mind I had to concede that there were still as many downs as ups and I still hated myself.
Could meditation really offer relief from the depression and anxiety that wrecked each day? As the Buddha had observed, life was suffering, and I needed a way out.
So I started meditating.
I wondered exactly how I would find the time to meditate in a day that was already too short. There seemed only one way to do it. With a rare display of conviction I set my alarm clock 40 minutes earlier than normal. This was how it would be.
I remember the first time I meditated. I was hungover. I listened to a guided meditation on a CD. As I cycled to work later that morning, the colours and textures of the world were different. Richer, more detailed, more real. Maybe I was still pissed. Whatever, it was enough for me to figure that perhaps there could be something in this after all.
In those early days I was shocked at the sheer volume of shit that my mind insisted on spewing forth. It was a continuous tidal wave of mental and emotional sewage. I was amazed. Is this really what is happening whilst I attempt to go about my daily life? No wonder I’m screwed. The thought that peace of mind was an actual attainable thing seemed ridiculous as I cowered under this mental bombardment.
While frustrating, I had glimpses of what could be. Though hard to stomach, the notion that we can choose how to respond to our thoughts had been planted like a seed in my mind.
I recognised how this could be a remedy for the victim status I occupied in relation to my own mental activity. I dared to envision a day when this was no longer the case. I trusted what I had heard in regard to this being possible, and gambled that waking up 40 minutes earlier for the rest of my life was a price worth paying for that freedom.
The time I invested started to pay off. Sitting on that cushion I learnt not to judge the quality of my thoughts, but to simply experience them, recognise them for what they were, allow them to be, and let them go. In time, the intensity and imposition of these thoughts would slowly begin to subside.
With more time, I started to recognise how thoughts emerge from nothingness, that they appear for a while in awareness, and then dissolve back into the same void from which they came. I realised their transitory and illusory nature.
I spotted their cunning plan: to hijack my emotions, to fool me into believing they had substance and they were real, to trick me into thinking my thoughts and feelings were ‘me’, that my brain vomit should affect my mental state.
As much as I could, I stayed present. I learned how to feel but not respond to the sensations, emotions and thoughts that came.
I wasn’t blocking anything out. It wasn’t about trying to control the contents of my mind, but to let whatever it was just be, without invoking an emotional response. And if there was an emotional response, I tried to just hold that in my awareness without judgement too.
I was able to nurture a space between the arrival of a thought and how I responded in relation to it. In time that space made it’s way from my cushion to other parts of my life, and it continues to grow. Not smoothly though. Fuck no. Sometimes it feels like nine years of meditation was for nothing. But these downers pass, like everything else.
Sometimes I experience astonishing things. Waves of ecstasy. Compassion. Love. A strange and intense spinning sensation. Clarity. Insight. Focus. Having thousands of arms like a Buddhist deity. Often it’s the best half hour of my day.
I’m convinced that the activity of our mind that causes us so much trouble is like clouds in the sky. When we meditate it’s like sitting in a plane that’s taking off. As that rising plane pierces the clouds that shield the sun, we pierce the veil that keeps us from experiencing the clear blue sky of our untainted minds.
At other times I feel tired, frustrated, sleepy and blunt.
I learnt that actually none of this matters. What is important is to just do the practice. Witness the contents of awareness and let it be. Meditation is not about achieving anything, it’s the process of observing and letting go.
When falling in love, we long for each other when we are apart and gain immeasurable pleasure from being together. Ecstatic energy flows between two bodies rapt in love. We blithely bathe in oceans of lust. When falling in love we cannot get enough.
For many people what they wish for most is to fall in love. And yet, the consequences of a love gone wrong are potentially so devastatingly and crushingly brutal that the aftermath of a relationship turned sour can literally be a life destroyed.
People kill others for love. People kill themselves out of love. Depression and heartbreak are symptoms of falling in love with the wrong person. All of which makes me wonder – is it too risky to fall in love?
Falling in love has to be one of the most intoxicating mental states available to us in the great pantheon of mundane and crazy experiences that comprise the human condition. In fact, looking back at the experience from a decidedly sober and not ‘falling in love’ state of mind, it strikes me how ridiculous and almost delusional the whole process seems.
It’s not just the subjective experience of being completely besotted with someone else, it’s the way we become so willing to give up so much to be with that other. Love is strong. Love strips us of our volition. Love derails plans, estranges us from friends and empties our pockets.
Falling in love is inherently risky. Most relationships fail and even those that ‘work’ are fraught with difficulties along the way. Falling in love exposes our deepest insecurities, triggers powerful feelings, and bestows great power in the hands of another. Falling in love opens us up to to the possibility of rejection, of not being good enough.
Falling in love makes us vulnerable and creates a gamble that wasn’t there before: that while we may win the love of another, we could just so easily lose it. The price of losing this gamble is rejection, and the triggering of any related past traumas. Love is a land inhabited by the demons and devils of our early-life conditioning. Only the brave would dare to tread here.
At least you’d think so… But in reality we do not choose to fall in love, love chooses us. Or rather, mysterious and powerful unconscious forces propel us irreversibly to collide with the universe of another.
Only if we have already been hurt sufficiently do we start to question whether we want to fall in love. Or maybe we proceed with more caution, chastened by experience, battle weary and wary of exposing ourselves to more pain.
Ultimately though, love can be a powerful tool. It is one of life’s great teachers, if we are receptive to it’s lessons and pay attention to the wisdom it can inspire. The burning light of love exposes the darkest recesses of our hearts.
It shows us the ways in which we hurt, the ways we react when our insecurities are triggered, and offers us the opportunity to bring these ghouls out of the dark and in to conscious awareness. Slowly we are given a method by which to integrate our pain, and with the other, or without the other, we grow.
It is sometimes said that before you can love someone else you have to love yourself. I think this is a stupid saying – not least because it gets banded about without anyone really knowing what it means, and in any case you can’t just simply decide to start loving yourself all of a sudden.
However I do think these words allude to an important truth. Before we can have a truly healthy relationship in love, one in which we are not using the other in order to fill something missing within ourselves, we need to be whole. This means we need to have developed to the point where our sense of self worth is not dependent on the validation of another.
Until life is ‘okay’ without the sweetness of our beloved’s touch, we run the risk of being broken by any subsequent withdrawal of love. And this is the challenge. Often, without consciously realising it, many people will use love because it will provide them with a sense of what they most need – to know that they are worthy of someone’s affection, to know that they are not alone.
But to rely on someone else for these comforts is to deny ourselves the opportunity of discovering them within oursleves. We take when we should give, and despite feeling strengthened by relationship, we give our power away.
Yes, it is risky to fall in love, too risky perhaps. It is also seldom a choice we make. But for those consumed by love’s mysterious waters, who are able to listen and learn, love is a teacher and love will help us grow. Love can hurt, but slowly love can heal.
An earlier version of this article was published in July 2013.
Alcohol. That most delicious, horrid, elixir, poison, potion of passion, liquid of love, brew of bliss and drink of depression. How to relate to this curious drug? It depends who you ask – I know some people extremely averse to drinking while others would say you’d be crazy not to, though I’m fairly sure the majority would be comprised of the latter. I’ve been thinking about drinking a lot of late. In fact for years I’ve been torn by my conflicting feelings towards alcohol, and the nagging feeling that I could make so much more of myself if I stopped drinking grows stronger by the week.
I won’t lie, I’ve drunk much more than I should have for many years. I’ve loved being drunk and have been completely smashed so many times I couldn’t even guess how many hundreds it is. Being drunk has bestowed upon me great times, new friends, one night stands, relationships, the feeling of being alive and a mountain of magical moments. If only I could remember the names, and what they all were… It has temporarily freed me from my usual shy and reserved, introverted and self-doubting tendencies, and enabled me to live a great social life which belies the inhibiting thought patterns I spend most of my time dealing with.
But it’s not that simple. Alcohol is unpredictable. When I drink I do not know who I will be that night. Will I be the charming, witty, sociable person I quite like, or the self loathing, lonely, depressed individual I despise, trapped inside the prison of my mind? And then there’s the next day… Doubtless I don’t need to describe this.
Of course you might rightly point out that I’m talking about extremes here, that I should just drink less, or stop after a couple and go home. But again it’s not that simple. The thing with alcohol is that after a drink or two, self autonomous choice seems to vanish. The alcohol starts to think for you. Just having a couple seems boring, and all of a sudden you’d be a spoil sport for leaving your companions.
Staying out for more booze presents the allure of ‘living in the moment’, making the most of life, being spontaneous and crazy. The bank account becomes irrelevant, tomorrow’s tasks can wait, and the friends you’re meeting for dinner won’t mind too much if you don’t show up. After all, we’ve all been there.
For those of us inspired by a healthy diet, mindful living or striving to improve ourselves, and particularly for those of us with a daily meditation practice, alcohol poses extra challenges. Meditation is defeated by the solace of a second snooze, being present is replaced by getting by, the potential inherent in every moment is vanquished, long term goals are slain by short term impulses. The mind is clouded, clarity lost, energy sapped. The body craves stimulants and junk food, anxiety increases and tiredness takes hold.
Of course to the regular drinker these symptoms might seem exaggerated, but I’m struck by how much of a poison alcohol seems to become after a period of abstention, time spent on a raw food diet, or sessions with a plant medicine like ayahuasca or psilocybin.
There is however a reason – and a good reason at that – why alcohol is so popular and why to contemplate giving up alcohol seems so bonkers to most people. Where would we get our fun? Alcohol so kindly gives us the escape we crave, the sweetness and elation that so often is missing from our monotonous and dissatisfying daily lives. For a few hours we can forget our shitty jobs, stresses at home, spiritually unfulfilling culture and how long we have to wait until our next holiday.
The ritual of cracking open a bottle, or sitting back on a comfortable pub chair and taking that first sweet gulp offers a moment of satisfaction, the chink of glasses while saluting your fellow revellers a second of gratification and connection. Of course it’s a distraction, but it’s a welcome distraction that greases the wheels of social interaction while creating a space in which life is good and problems can be shared.
So how to deal with the question of whether to continue drinking or not? At my best I sense the potential that could be unlocked with the extra clarity of mind that would be available, the extra time, the physical strength, the early mornings and the weekends regained. At my most inspired I feel how much more I could create and achieve and maybe even how much more stable my mind would be. In a country where the drinking culture is so ingrained this represents a huge challenge though, and there’s a lot I’d be turning my back on. I seem attached to the euphoria, sense of connection and carefree spirit of the good times, the letting go and the comfort of drinking with friends.
Maybe there is a middle ground to be found. If so it requires a clarity of intention and strength of mind. Maybe certain situations more prone to providing a slippery slope can be avoided while other more sedate occasions can be enjoyed. But again I come back to the intuition that this needs to be all or nothing. I’ve had a long relationship with drink and I know its lessons inside out. Maybe it’s time to try a new way of living. In contemplating this I come to the realisation that the alcohol is not the root problem. If I was happy with my work and in my life I wouldn’t feel this attachment. I need to change these things. But maybe it’s more even than this. The benefits we seemingly gain from drinking – feeling more relaxed in the environment we’re in, connecting better with others – point to a deeper problem.
To greater or lesser degrees we all feel a sense of separation from those around us, and an absence of connection with the world. In other words we lack a sense of belonging. The human condition seems to necessitate this situation, and fear based patterns of thinking learnt during tricky childhoods exacerbate it’s influence. There are many ways in which this manifests but one of them is a subtle or even profound sense of not being at ease in the world, and this is felt more acutely in certain more uncomfortable situations. Alcohol is often able to dissolve the boundaries that keep us from being able to feel connected with each other and with the world we inhabit, that keep us from feeling like we are truly supposed to be here in the world at large, or what ever scenario we are in. Drinking can therefore alleviate that most fundamental malaise.
Of course there are many reasons people drink, and there are doubtless many reasons I drink. But it does strike me that many of them can be attributed to this root cause – the pervasive sense of separation. To attain the middle ground and to have a healthy relationship with alcohol, one first has to heal the disconnection that is responsible for the inability to feel at ease. This is a significant task, and a life long one for some at that.
I’m not suggesting that we should all stop drinking, and in any case ceasing to drink on it’s own will only put an end to your hangovers, not your hang ups. And of course many people have a healthy relationship with alcohol, where it is not used to self medicate, and where drinking alcohol does not lead to the inability to stop drinking and the consequent desire to get completely smashed on more and more drink, culminating in a quest to find something even stronger to take the mind somewhere more extreme, and not stopping until the body gives up and falls into that sweet, dreamless comatosed slumber.
Those of us who drink might not all operate at this extreme, though I know so many who do, and it’s a tendency in myself that used to be very strong and still lies latently inside today. Despite the euphoria and apparently social bonding affect of getting wasted with friends or strangers, I currently find it difficult to continue to justify the physical damage, the lost weekends recovering, the anxiety that ensues after use, the dampening of dreams and absence of clarity about the future, not to mention the financial outlay that goes with alcohol consumption. I desire to see what I can make of myself with out these handicaps, to see whether I really can be more creative, see goals through to fufilment, be physically stronger, mentally more stable, spiritually more steadfast, and whether I can develop a healthier relationship with life. I can’t help but think that for me, after so many years, the game is up with booze.
I’m not suggesting it will be easy, or that it will even be successful, or that this is permanent. I also have no idea how I will approach invites to the pub, continuing to go to clubs to hear music I love, boozy weddings, dates, parties and after work socials. Such is the pervasiveness of drinking in society and my dis-ease with navigating these scenarios without being at least a little tipsy.
The path winds and is not straight. People and times change. What is appropriate now may not work in the future. Aside from those working with a strong addiction to alcohol there is no need to work with absolutes and impose on ourselves a lifetime ban on drinking. To err is to be human after all, and this only sets ourselves up for failure in any case. It does however feel healthy for those of us with a passion for mindful living to explore alternative modes of being including both drinking and not drinking, learning what there is to learn from each state. Remaining as present as we can, and through being as conscious and honest with ourselves as possible we can learn to observe the motivations and effects of our actions and discover what works and what causes us problems. Hopefully we can come to a healthy arrangment with alcohol, whatever that is. After all, the human story is one of trying stuff out and of learning from our successes and mistakes. I’ve been very successful at drinking a lot over the years so for now I’m going to try something else.